Minority Rule Cannot Last in America. It Never HasRoundup
tags: democracy, early Republic, US Senate, Revolutionary War era, representative government
KENNETH OWEN is an associate professor of history at the University of Illinois at Springfield.
Minority rule is fast becoming the defining feature of the American republic. In 2000 and 2016, presidential candidates who received fewer votes than their opponents were nevertheless sent to the White House. Joe Biden’s 2020 victory came not because he won nearly 7 million more votes nationally than President Donald Trump, but rather because he won about 200,000 votes more in a handful of swing states. Congress has seen a similar dynamic: Though Republican senators make up the majority in the chamber, they represent more than 20 million fewer Americans than Democratic senators do. Such lopsided electoral calculus seems to fly in the face of both parties’ principles. It cannot last.
Though this period of minority rule is new since World War II, it is far from unprecedented. Unequal legislative apportionment has been a recurring quality of American government since its establishment. Parties who have found themselves in power by institutional oddities rather than overall weight of vote have refused to reach across the aisle, instead using their institutional advantage to further consolidate their hold on power. Although such tactics have been successful in the short term, they have ultimately been only temporary expedients. When the minority parties were finally removed from power, the backlash against them was swift and strong.
Begin at the nation’s founding. At the time when American colonists started actively considering independence from Britain, Pennsylvania’s legislature no longer proportionally represented its population. The Pennsylvania Assembly had proved efficient and professional throughout the 18th century, defending the interests of the colonial population against British imperial officials, but as the colony’s population expanded westward, eastern elites refused to extend representation to the predominantly Scotch-Irish and German immigrants living in the new settlements. Additionally, while Philadelphia had grown to become the most populous city in North America, political leaders from the surrounding counties refused to increase the city’s number of representatives. By the early 1770s, the state’s most radical voices in favor of revolution—Philadelphians and westerners—were systematically underrepresented in the legislature.
In the short term, the denial of proportional representation worked: Pennsylvania’s government, designed to amplify moderate and conservative voices, was notoriously slow to endorse resistance to Britain, and in 1776 refused to allow its delegates in the Continental Congress to vote for independence. By this point, though, Pennsylvania’s radicals had taken matters into their own hands. Drawing on protest movements that had gathered pace in 1774 and 1775, they organized a series of conventions giving greater voice to the marginalized. When, in May 1776, the Continental Congress called on states to form their own governments, Pennsylvanians bypassed the colonial assembly entirely, and used the convention and committee movements to send pro-independence delegates to Congress and to write their own state constitution.
In September 1776, Pennsylvania’s radicals took their revenge. Each county was given more or less equal representation in the first legislature. This measure was about as biased toward the western counties as the previous arrangements had been toward eastern ones. But having been shut out of power for so long, the radicals were keen to ensure they held the reins. Pennsylvania’s first constitution, by a long shot the most radically democratic of all the original 13 states’, was bitterly contested for the next decade. Conservative opponents tried, and failed, to revise the state constitution four times from 1776 until 1783. Though they finally succeeded in writing a new constitution in 1790, it came at the cost of 14 years of unstable and rancorous government.
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